‘The Donut King’ Review: Alice Gu’s Sweet Doc Plugs a Hole in the Asian American Immigrant Story
How much do you know about donuts? According to guilty-pleasure doc “The Donut King,” on average, Americans eat 31 of the deep-fried confections per year. Taken as a whole, the donut industry generates somewhere on the order of $8 billion annually. An effortlessly educational first feature from Chinese American cinematographer Alice Gu, “The Donut King” is full of trivia about the beloved American treats, but the most surprising fact by far is that the vast majority of the donuts sold in California — some estimate as many as 90% — are made by Cambodian immigrants, and that phenomenon traces back to one man, Ted Ngoy.
The surprising story of how that came to be, and what it says about the American Dream are the real drivers of Gu’s drool-inducing debut, which assumes that everyone loves the sweet snacks, but most don’t think about who actually does the dunkin’. Buoyed by flashy editing and a West Coast hip-hop score, “The Donut King” alternates between the sugar-high hyperbole of a Food Network special and something far more sobering — a History Channel lesson about the horrors many of these Cambodian refugees endured at the hands of the Khmer Rouge back home.
Switching gears between such extremes is enough to make one’s head spin, but “The Donut King” does it with style (and a little help from artist Andrew Hem), delivering far more substance than its junk-food subject might suggest. The film starts on top, celebrating the pastry dynasty that newly immigrated Ngoy founded in the mid-’70s. While working at a So Cal gas station, he caught a late-night whiff of the next day’s donuts, and he was hooked. Ngoy signed up for Winchell’s training program, where he absorbed the chain’s techniques. Then, as soon as he could afford to branch out on his own, he adapted what he’d learned to his own stores. He named the first shop Christy’s after his wife, and swiftly set about expanding, sponsoring Cambodian family members (along with many unrelated refugees), setting them up with donut businesses of their own.
One can sense a far more dramatic story simmering just beneath the surface of the film Gu gives us — the template for an HBO crime saga, with echoes of “The Sopranos” perhaps — although “The Donut King” dosn’t seem especially interested in dirt. Or detail, for that matter. It uncovers a few good stories, like the time Ngoy and his son drove down to Orange County to sell one of his stores, then sped back to L.A. afterwards with $85,000 in cash stuffed in a paper bag. They got pulled over, of course, and while they were in police custody, the sack disappeared, also of course. That’s an episode of a “Donut King” TV series right there, should anyone circle back to identify the drama that goes largely unexploited in the doc.
Who were these other immigrants, and what was it like for them working with a self-made donut mogul? Food writer Greg Nichols offers some intriguing generalizations, though it’s reductive to describe all of these Cambodian businesses as “mom and pop” operations, versus corporate rivals Winchell’s and Dunkin Donuts (the East Coast competitor that had such trouble breaking into the California market), when they have a kind of unexamined collective power to defend their turf. There’s clearly more to this story, and an investigative journalist surely would have dug deeper.
Even so, Gu goes farther than most local-news reporters ever did with the story. For starters, she traveled all the way to Cambodia to track down Ngoy (how this one-time millionaire came to abandon his empire is a tale few know, adding drama to the back half of the film). Bringing him back to California makes for some good reality TV-style reunions, and interviews with his extended family — who now run a number of the SoCal stores — reveal how subsequent generations approach the business differently: Some want to pursue other careers, while others have found savvy ways (from social media to innovating recipes) to build the brand.
But where’s the conflict? The doc seems too committed to selling donuts and donut culture — ogling Googie-styled shops such as Randy’s Donuts and The Donut Hole, or lusting after the high-concept creations at the ultra-popular DK’s in Santa Monica — to do anything that might diminish audiences’ appetite for the treats. And no, reminding audiences of a decades-ago Cambodian genocide doesn’t count. Sure, that’s important context, but the movie puts those events squarely in the past, suggesting that the hard-working survivors’ capitalist success has been the ultimate triumph over their time in grueling communist labor camps.
Still, Gu’s to be commended for recognizing that the hollow part of a donut might provide such a rich window into another culture. There’s much to learn about the immigrant experience from her research, even if the movie leaves us craving two things: donuts, obviously, but also a more well-rounded sense of all the incredible personalities she too-politely engages with along the way.